Published earlier this year, David A. Conrad‘s book Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan looks at the historical and social contexts in which Kurosawa made his films. And I am here to tell you how good it is.
Spoiler warning: it is very good, indeed.
The format of Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan is pretty familiar. The book begins with an introductory chapter that functions as a short overview of 20th century Japan. This is followed by the tried-and-true structure very typical for most Kurosawa books, as Conrad looks at each of Kurosawa’s films one at a time, every chapter dedicated to one of Kurosawa’s 30 major films. At the end, we have a short concluding epilogue that works as sort of a bookend to the introduction, the notes, references and a pretty good index. The book is altogether 260 pages, with an average of 6-8 pages devoted to each film.
So, structurally it is a pretty typical Kurosawa book. However, what is different here is the focus of its contents. While the book of course discusses Kurosawa’s films, it aims neither at technical descriptions nor narrative exegesis, but rather looks at the social and historical contexts in which each film was made.
To give some examples, the chapter on The Most Beautiful discusses women’s place in Japan at the time, while the chapter on No Regrets for Our Youth gives an excellent summary of the historical figures and events on which that film was based. One Wonderful Sunday talks about the poverty and homelessness of the time, while Conrad’s discussion of Rashomon frames the film within the context of the Korean War, as well as noting the contemporary discussion of sexual assault in Japan. Ikiru takes a look at the Japanese bureaucratic system after the war, the healthcare system and the national pension system, while the chapter dedicated to Seven Samurai discusses the social structures of class and caste, as well as equating the samurai’s arrival to the village with the arrival of the Americans to Japan after the Second World War, and the establishment of Japan’s Self Defence Force. Environmentalism and the cold war are at the heart of Conrad’s discussion of Dersu Uzala, and the chapter on Kagemusha is largely devoted to a discussion of Japanese nationalism and identity. In other words, each chapter focuses on one or two major themes and suggests how they may have influenced either the making of the film or its interpretation.
If that all sounds like a lot, in a way it is a lot, for the book does engage with fairly complex social, cultural and political issues. With many authors, this kind of thematic complexity would be mirrored in the complexity of language and expression, often resulting in a reading experience which, if not worse, would be at least more challenging to digest for someone with no background in the topics being discussed. Not here, however. The book is written in a very clean, very easy-to-read style that allows the argument to flow naturally, almost conversationally, making it a real pleasure to read. The author has also been excellent at distilling these topics to their basic components and concentrating on the essential. Rather than getting lost in what would be unnecessary details here, Conrad gives what you need. And in many ways, this is more than appropriate for a book about Kurosawa, a director whose films can be argued to follow the same pattern: complex social commentary wrapped in an easy-to-digest, enjoyable package.
That being said, if there is one aspect that I was missing a little while reading, it was some kind of pointers to where I could learn more about each topic. While references and sources are given, I would have loved to get a little more help for my next step in exploring these fascinating topics. Of course, that also tells something about Conrad’s chosen topics: they were genuinely so interesting that I often wanted to know more than a 6-8 page chapter could reasonably include.
As is understandable for a book that offers a range of topics as wide as this one, it is also natural that some of the historical connections seem more elegantly connected to the films than others. For instance, the chapter on Yojimbo discusses the Non-Aligned Movement that developed as a response to the cold war tensions in the 1950s and 60s, while the chapter on Ran talks about homosexuality, women’s rights and gender identity in Japan in the 1980s. Both are excellent chapters about very interesting topics, but I felt that their links to the films were not quite as strong, or as strongly argued, as in other chapters.
In terms of presentation, I read the book from a PDF file that was kindly sent to me free of charge by the publisher — which, in hindsight, was the wrong move from my part, as I have been cutting down my screen time. Anyway, because of the copy that I had, I cannot really comment on the physical book or the ebook proper, but at least the PDF copy was very well laid out and the numerous pictures and illustrations used throughout the book were welcome, and sometimes surprising, additions.
All in all, I have to commend David A. Conrad not only for an excellent book, but also for finding a niche in the already quite crowded place of Kurosawa literature, and one which is both fresh and familiar at the same time. If you have any interest in the historical factors that not only influenced Kurosawa’s films, but are often the key to better understanding them, I can warmly recommend Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan. Get it for yourself, or get it as a gift for anyone interested in Kurosawa or 20th century Japanese history.
And if you are still uncertain about whether to get it, check out Toho Kingdom’s excellent interview with the author where he discusses the book’s background and influences in more detail.
Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan is available directly from the publisher McFarland, as well as from other places. If you use the following links to purchase your copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, I get a tiny commission, as is the case with other Amazon links on this website. That said, this review was not sponsored in any way (other than me getting a free review copy from the publisher), and I do encourage you to support your local bookshop if possible.